Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Home Repair Hell

Well, thank god we’re almost through January, which at our house has become The Month of Home Repair. Those last two words always make me want to lie down in a darkened room -- now a viable option since our handyman has fixed the bedroom’s broken window.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain (not that it’s ever stopped me before), since we’ve lived in this house for nearly four years without a home repair bill. Are we lucky or just slothful? I suspect the latter. I mean, I broke that bedroom window a year ago while trying to jam an ill-fitting shade into its bracket (socket? docket? moppet?). So yeah, we haven’t paid any home repair bills before this month, preferring to live with broken windows, sticky doors and cracked caulking.

But now we’ve decided to sell said house, since Ron’s daily commute to Oakland County has given him nervous twitches and a predilection for weird audio books. (“Who will you meet in Heaven?”) Plus Benny refuses to add the Daddy when he plays with his stuffed sheep family because “the Daddy’s at work.” It’s just a difficult situation.

So we’re selling the homestead during what the Detroit Free Press calls a “perfect storm” of economic misery. The National Association of Realtors, the Free Press continues, said last year that Metro Detroit had suffered the sharpest decline in home values in any large urban market in the nation.

So we’re really excited, as you might imagine. Determined to wring every last drop of blood from this stone, we’re doing home repairs, walking that fine line between adding value to the house and just throwing money down the drain (or the basement, to be precise).

The phrase “doing home repairs” is, of course, terribly misleading. You might imagine me or Ron replacing hinges or popping off old tiles. Actually the real process is less impressive. I make a list of the most necessary jobs: fix windows, recaulk bathtub, deal with basement (affectionately nicknamed “The Evil Dungeon of Cat Hairballs).

Then I whine about the list for weeks, frequently lying down on the bed and glaring at the broken window. Then I reluctantly call a handyman recommended by a local hardware store. His line is busy. I lie down again, exhausted by my efforts. But Barry the Handyman calls me back (curse that caller ID!) and I reluctantly admit I have some jobs for him and try not to groan when he says he’s free this week.

Barry shows up with his son and they’re unfailingly kind and patient with my sorry self. I feel humiliated, pointing out all the problems I’ve ignored for years, but I rally until we come to the bathroom electric outlet.

The outlet is itself is fine, but the cover isn’t screwed on. The house’s previous owner (who frankly had more do-it-yourself spirit then was good for a man) had updated the outlet per our home inspector’s recommendation, but didn’t have time to attach the cover.

“No trouble, I said blithely then. “We’ll get that screwed on this weekend.”

Ahem. Well, three and a half years later, and the cover still hangs there, fastened only by a round nightlight. Barry looks at me blankly, then instructs his son to screw the cover on – no extra charge. Barry Jr. does it in two minutes.

After that harrowing experience, I was ready to abandon all home repair efforts and tell prospective buyers the house had “lots of character.” But then our water heater busted, leaking all over the basement carpet. (Why do you always discover these things at 11:45 p.m.?)

So I only had eight hours to whine before calling Barry again. He bought us a new water heater, installed it, took the old one away and advised me to call our insurance agent. Maybe they can clean up the water damage. “Who’s your insurer?” he asked.

I had no clue. This is another reason why home repair is so stressful. I’m just ignorant. I don’t know how old my water heater is, I don’t know when we last replaced our furnace filter, I don’t know the square footage of our basement, I don’t know whether our electricity operates off fuses or circuit breakers (although I did guess right on the last).

I did find our homeowners’ policy, but our deductible was too large to save any money. Which left me and Barry and Barry Jr. staring at the basement carpet, unequivocally damp and smelling faintly of mold. It had to go.

So I sent them away, lay down in a darkened room (admiring my unbroken window), then consulted Ron, who frothed at the mouth at the idea of paying the Barrys to rip up the carpet. “I can do that!” he cried over the phone.

“Oh yeah?” I asked. “But we don’t know what’s underneath. You want to rip out rotted subfloor?” I painted dire pictures of putrid sinkholes and nests of trolls living under our basement carpet, then promised to write some articles to pay for the work.

“But you have to be there when they start ripping it up,” I said.

Ron agreed. We finished shoveling out the basement Tuesday night. Ron dropped the kid off at daycare yesterday morning while I put our cat in Benny’s bedroom and our dirty laundry in the home office. Then Ron and I lined up wide-eyed on the basement stairs for the ceremonial First Cut.

We got off easy. The carpet wasn’t even glued down. The only thing underneath was concrete and some old tile. Ron fled to the safety of work and I hid in Benny’s bedroom with my laptop and the cat while the Barry’s hauled out carpet and tile and mopped the concrete.

So now we’ve come to the end of this episode of home repair. We’ll have to cover that concrete somehow, but we’ve run out of momentum … and money. The basement will have to wait until March. For now, I think I’ll go lie down in a darkened room. Or maybe not. The vent cover on the floor looks like it might need replacing.